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By David Alessandro Benrimoh November 10, 2009

The Sixth Sense, Or The Mystery of the Ghost Door

So here’s a ghost story for you:

My room is connected to my parents’ room by a bathroom with two doors. Over the years, I’ve realized that if I opened one door, the other door opened too; similarly, if I closed one door, the other one slammed shut. Spooky, eh? I kept asking myself why this was: was the door haunted? Broken? Or, worst of all, was my little brother stalking me using an invisibility cloak and opening doors to freak me out?

The thing is, all of these possibilities are, well, possible. Due to the law of probability, any of these things has a small chance of being true; however, I never really believed my brother had access to super-high tech, or that an ectoplasmic monstrosity was inhabiting my bathroom doors.

I looked at the physics of the situation and realized- thanks to Chemistry class- that my doors were just responding to airflow; one door opening or closing created a push or a pull that the other responded to.

We can derive a law from this somewhat anti-climactic realization:
Reality is independent of our subjective thoughts.

By playing with this equation a little more, we find this:
We experience reality subjectively.

The reality of what we see and hear is different for each of us; our five senses draw in countless bits of information every microsecond. Assume the brain works like a computer, processing this layered, voluminous stream of data. By categorizing all this information and choosing what is made available to our consciousness, our brains are able to function in a world with high information density.

Our minds filter data into distinct categories, and only some of this is stored for our short and long term voluntary access. Our memories are selective, remembering only what they have been trained to remember- if even that! In the interest of avoiding constant sensory overload, we practice a form of what is essentially subconscious censorship.

Everyone perceives things differently. Think about the man in the moon: this formation of craters that create light and dark spots in the moon has been interpreted by many different cultures- Christian, Jewish, Haida, Viking- each of which gave their own interpretation to the odd shapes. It looks to us like a face; we identify and remember it by linking it to something familiar to us, and so the world comes to us filtered through our perception; before we see it, the world is “humanized” by our perception. This is technically called anthropomorphizing.

We perceive reality through our senses, and these senses are shaped by the master sense of perception. This sense is in turn shaped by our experiences, our personalities, our hopes, desires, emotions and socialization. Perception can be considered to act as a sense because it “feels” the data coming in through the five other senses, classifying it much like our sense of touch can classify different surfaces.

The only way we know to derive accurate conclusions about the world around us is to remain as objective as possible; this requires a great effort, because we need to overcome some of the filtering, construing and emotional processes within us.

This quest for objectivity, this separation of senses from perception, of turning six senses into five, this is the endeavor of a scientist. And not an easy one- throughout history, scientists have been misled, among many other factors, by their senses, by what they believed was correct instead of what was true independent of their premises.

For example, take Aristotle: he taught that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, an assumption based on his worldview of inherent hierarchies- earth (eg: a rock) ‘wants’ to return to earth; the more earth is falling, the greater the aggregate ‘desire’ of the object and the faster it falls. If we were to judge this only by everyday experience, we might believe that heavier objects falling faster makes intuitive sense; we feel heavier objects hit us harder when they fall, so we might attribute a greater speed to them, and this is why for hundreds of years no one tested Aristotle’s theory.

But this is the trick of the senses - we know, thanks to Galileo, that everything that doesn’t float in the air like a feather falls at the same speed. Our senses aren’t made as scientific instruments; they are evolutionarily conditioned to be as effective as possible in helping us survive - and knowing heavy objects hurt when they hit you from above is definitely good for survival.

But once we discovered we could comprehend and manipulate a lot of the natural world without the help of shamans, spirits, or untested assumptions like Aristotle’s theories, once we discovered that accurate observation was more useful than unfounded speculation, we came to a defining question- do we reject what our subjective senses plainly show us in favor of experimental objectivity – what our impersonal instruments and sciences tell us?

It appears that we, as a society, chose the latter, and this is why we have things like steam engines and space stations and also why, by direct extension, I don’t believe a ghost is haunting my door. This leaves us with one final, burning question- if the truth is not always what we see, if it is independent of us, does that mean we, along with all our perceptions of existence, are false? Unreal? Should we sacrifice our individual perception for the sake of objective truth?

This touches the debate of what it means to be human. Is the defining feature of humanity our ability to set aside our personal perception and use reason to find truth? Or is greatest attribute of humanity the ability of every human to understand the world in a unique fashion? Both of these are uniquely human traits, so both would seem to be an integral part of the human experience. In order to address this riddle, it is useful ask this question: are these two traits necessarily in direct opposition? Is it not possible to view the world through the eyes of reason, but to attribute individual meaning to those facts we glean through objective inquiry? Is it really necessary to throw away reason in favor of individual perception, or vice versa? Perhaps not; perhaps these are two sides of the human coin, two different but complimentary aspects of our experience.

Acknowledgements

The photograph “Senses” is by João Loureiro, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Comments

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    MC

    December 2, 2011

    This was a very interesting entry. I believe it was Tony Kushner who wrote something similar about the limitations of the imagination. It’s all kind of depressing, I think, to have to live in a world where we must rationalize everything in order to take ourselves, and to have others, take us seriously. In my opinion, being a human is in fact having reason, on that you are correct, but we should all keep in mind some of these reasonings may be so examined they become familiar and humanity stops seeing flaws in reasons. I guess this does not qualify for physics and chemistry, but maybe for human interaction instead. In some ways, wouldn’t it have been more gratifying to find out it was your brother opening the door? or a ghost? Maybe I’m over rationalizing myself.

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    JL

    November 8, 2012

    Although I knew about these two traits individually, I have never thought about them together. I was very interested to read the views that were imposed in this article. After reading this piece more than once, I have to agree with the last view stated in the article. It says, “these are two sides of the human coin, two different but complimentary aspects of our experience.” I found that the author did an excellent job with explaining the counter argument to each view in this article in order for for us to understand each view clearly. By doing so, it really gave me a firm understanding of not only what the article was about, but also an opinion on the matter. I am now very interested in this topic and would like to do some follow up readings on it.

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    Mona

    November 8, 2012

    Grabbing the attention of its reader, the article begins with a mysterious event that happens to the writer, his method was ingenious to keep the reader interested to discover how both doors open simultaneously, as you keep reading the author explains how it was just the airflow that caused both doors to shut and open at the same time. Usually when people experience something that is mysterious they associate it with paranormal phenomena. But this article explains really well how things are not how we perceive them; many situations can be explained using scientific reasoning like the door in the article. The author writes about how “we experience reality subjectively” so basically one’s perception is their reality and I agree with that because things aren’t always what they seem and there are many people that believe what they want to believe despite the reality.

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    Anthony

    November 13, 2012

    This article made me think about how differently people perceive reality. What is logical to one person may not be reasonable to the next. I found it interesting that a theory put forth by Aristotle was automatically believed for a long time simply because he said so. This proves that just because someone is knowledgeable and famous, theories must still be tested. However, I think it is important to remember that people’s intuition and “sixth-sense” may well lead to fascinating propositions and theories. It would be a shame if reality were only interpreted one way. That could result in a very boring world.

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